Shoppers are now being invited to check with their own eyes that what something is labeled is what they actually eat.

Consumers can punch in a 10-digit identification number on the price tags of domestic beef, and a computer screen will show a scanned copy of a certificate showing the animal’s breeding history and that the cow from which the beef came is free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

In an experiment started in February at its Yamatotsuruma outlet in Kanagawa Prefecture, Aeon Co., which runs the Jusco supermarket chain nationwide, has introduced a comprehensive tracking system with which consumers can trace food products back to their producers, with information on the distribution route they have taken before reaching their shopping cart.

Similar projects have been taken up by agricultural cooperatives and others in a bid to restore consumer confidence in the country’s food industry, which has been shattered by a series of labeling scandals involving Snow Brand Foods Co. and other food manufacturers and distributors.

Snow Brand Foods officially closed its more than half-century-old operation Tuesday after its beef-labeling scam destroyed consumers’ trust in the nation’s sixth-largest meat packer.

In the scam, which came to light in late January, the company falsely labeled 30 tons of imported beef as domestic between October and November and received 196 million yen under a government buyback scheme designed to bail out the domestic beef industry hit hard by the mad cow disease outbreak last fall.

The scandal was followed by a spate of revelations of food-labeling scams nationwide — from beef, pork and poultry to vegetables — prompting the government to review food-safety regulations and to impose stiffer punishments on those involved in mislabeling.

Yet more fundamentally, some critics maintain, the labeling scandals have exposed the murky nature of the nation’s food-distribution systems.

Traceability has now suddenly become a buzzword with authorities and the food industry, both desperate to win back consumer trust.

In a policy to overhaul food strategy released in early April, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry expressed its intent to introduce the traceability system beginning in fiscal 2003.

Yet, those involved in creating the traceability system question its feasibility, citing hefty costs and the difficulty of providing strict and thorough records.

Traceability was also a key topic of international concern during a meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in Yokohama in March, with the EU and the U.S. pitted against each other over the adaptation of a system to monitor foods containing genetically modified organisms.

In the meeting, however, both sides reached a preliminary agreement to establish international standards covering GMO foods, including a provision that the international community consider creating a traceability system for them.

Limitations of the system

Junichi Kowaka, executive director of the food-safety advocacy group Japan Offspring Fund, expects that given the agreement at the Codex meeting, the traceability system will be introduced to cover various foods in Japan in the near future.

However, he warned that traceability does not provide a foolproof solution to the current food-safety crisis.

“It has its limitations. We cannot make sure that no identification numbers have been forged in the middle of the food-distribution process.”

Takeo Tomiyama, an official at the farm ministry’s consumer division, agreed. “The situation won’t change without effective counterfeit-prevention measures.”

He suggested that some methods, including a database system used in the EU to prevent bogus claims by matching shipping and receiving reports, be installed to make traceability trustworthy.

According to Yasuhide Chikazawa, manager of Aeon’s meat merchandising department, the company began working on the traceability system two years ago by sending a research mission to Europe.

The firm’s move followed food-related incidents, including an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in beef cows in Miyazaki Prefecture in March 2000 as well as Snow Brand Milk Products’ food-poisoning fiasco that hit mainly western Japan that summer.

“We felt an urgent need to provide true information on our merchandise to our customers,” Chikazawa said.

He said the firm plans to expand the traceability system to cover other food items, including fish.

At the same time, Chikazawa acknowledged difficulties in developing a traceability system — it could not be achieved without the cooperation and compliance of all involved.

There is also the problem of cost.

The farm ministry is currently attempting to introduce the system in fiscal 2003, starting with beef, because resources to finance the system are limited.

As a first step to establish a nationwide database on domestic beef, officials have almost completed tagging the ears of all 4.5 million dairy and beef cows in the country so that records of all domestic beef can be traced back to producers. The tags carry the 10-digit identification numbers.

This has been funded by the government as part of the 3.4 billion yen emergency project designed to shore up the decline in beef consumption.

But farm ministry officials said each producer will have to shoulder the tagging-related costs in the near future, putting an additional financial burden on already embattled cattle farmers.

“Of course, there are complaints from farmers. Everyone wants to have it for free,” a farm ministry official said.

The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zenno) started its own traceability project in April 2000. The system now covers rice, tea leaves, beef and soybeans.

Officials pointed out, however, the difficulty of ensuring proper record-keeping among rank-and-file farm producers, who may fail to record necessary information or even enter outright lies.

“When we launched the project in 2000, we decided to believe in innate human goodness,” said Atsushi Shibata, assistant manager of Zenno’s sales promotion department. He added that unless the problem of ensuring accurate data is solved, “We cannot go beyond the experimental stage.”

A more basic solution?

Meanwhile, some experts are concerned that the real question may be left unaddressed amid the current traceability fad.

“I don’t deny the importance of traceability, but does it solve the essential problems of the food-safety crisis?” asked Takahiro Okada, president of Saibai Net, which trades farm produce on the Internet.

“Although we have a traceability system, it is only additional value on our products. It is not the main reason why our vegetables are popular,” he said.

Okada, who promotes communication between consumers and farmers on the company’s Internet site, said the recent public distrust in the food industry reveals that food-safety problems run deeper than fraudulent labeling.

“What is being questioned is the Japanese agricultural industry itself, in which foods are delivered to consumers after traveling long distribution routes. We have to shorten the distance between producers and consumers,” he said.

A similar view has been voiced by Hiroko Kubota, a professor of economics at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, who said the recent incidents should serve as a wakeup call for consumers.

She argued that Japan’s dietary practice, with its heavy dependence on imported foods, has gone beyond the healthy mileage for foods. According to the farm ministry, the country’s food self-sufficiency in terms of calories was 40 percent for overall foodstuffs.

Citing so-called community-supported agriculture movements in the U.S. and organic farming activities in Japan, the consumer issue expert argued that people should eat what is grown locally.

“I think the traceability system is one of several ways to regain consumer confidence,” she said. “But the system would be a lot simpler and less costly if foods were grown and delivered locally.”

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